What learning to swim at 38 taught me about my kids

You read that right. I’m 38 years old and just took swim lessons.

Let’s start from the beginning. While I took a few classes at age five, learning to float and dive for rings, I never felt truly comfortable or at ease in the water. For years, it’s been my dirty little secret, something you feel like you should share, but you’re afraid of being judged. So, you just fake it, hoping you won’t be put to the test…and perish.

But now, as the mom of two littles, I felt the need to learn. After all, we love the beach and both of them are in swim classes. Wasn’t it hypocritical of me to ask them to do something I wasn’t willing to do?

When another mom friend of mine revealed to me last summer that she didn’t know how to “really” swim either and suggested we take lessons, I immediately said yes. And then secretly hoped she would forget. As one of my bravest friends, she was up for a challenge and ready to be vulnerable, but was I?

Months went by and the stars slowly aligned. We discovered another friend who didn’t know how to swim. We found a class. This past spring, we took the plunge. Spoiler alert: all three of us can now successfully swim the length of a pool with proper form and ease.

In the process, I gained a greater appreciation of what I’m asking my kids to do when they’re learning a new skill. As an adult, we don’t always remember how challenging it is to tackle something you’ve never done before. As a child, it’s the story of your life.

Learning something new is hard.

When I say hard, I mean uncomfortably, emotionally, and physically difficult. My first swim class felt like trying to get my brain to work in a way that didn’t make sense. “If you don’t learn how to breathe and kick, you will not be able to swim,” the teachers said over and over. “Breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose.” Wait, what? So, do exactly the opposite of what I knew from yoga, pilates, and meditation? Right.

The next morning, I woke up and my body screamed, “Heck no!” My back, shoulders, and neck were so sore. We often forget that when our kids are learning something new, be it swimming, ice skating, gymnastics, or another sport, they are using new muscles and might be uncomfortable or even in pain after a lesson. Be sure to give them your understanding and comfort during this stage.

Learning something new brings anxiety and dread.

I thought I’d be able to manage my water anxiety with deep breaths, but it kept creeping up on me. My fingers would start to tingle and I would think about swimming in open water. (“Never!”) Often our trio would text each other ahead of class, complaining about how we didn’t want to go that night. But we did anyway, rewarding ourselves with the hot tub after class. (The therapist in me needed positive reinforcement.)

Children need this same validation and positive encouragement. They need to be able to say they don’t want to go, have their feelings validated, and then be rewarded for their bravery. As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says, “It’s not brave if you’re not scared.” Make rewards intrinsic (e.g., acknowledging how proud you are of them and they are of themselves) and extrinsic (e.g., my son’s favorite: tacos and ice cream after skating lessons.)

Learning something new comes with self-criticism.

Our swim teachers were pretty old school. They did not dish out compliments, but instead spoke truth about form. One of the most anxiety-producing moments was when we were asked to line up along the poolside and watch our fellow students swim one by one and critique their form. When I swam, my self-criticism flared up in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “Why can’t I get the breathing right? Why am I out of breath?” Looking back now, these critiques were one of the most helpful parts of the course because you could see yourself in others, but, in the moment my self-talk was less than kind.

The experience taught me that my kids might not want to perform for us when learning something new because, as I did, they feel judged. Parents often ignore our kids’ negative talk and push the positives. While we mean well, this oversimplifies what our children are sharing with us. Instead, repeat back to them what they’re telling you and acknowledge their fear of not being as good as others. Gentle reminders that everyone learns at a different pace — and that you have faced these same worries — go a long away.

Learning something new produces pride.

Having conquered swim lessons as an adult, I have such pride telling people that I did something unique, hard, and uncomfortable. It’s a feeling that every parent wants their child to feel too, but how can we ask our littles to try new things if we aren’t leading by example? Ask yourself: what is the last new thing you learned?

These days when my kids don’t want to put their face in the water at swim class, I get it. When they don’t want to go, I get it. When they say they want to quit, oh boy, do I get it. I gently remind them, as I did with myself every class, that hard things are good things…and that I would never ask them to do anything they couldn’t do. We’re all stronger than we think.

Scroll to Top

Join Our
Newsletter